In Letters to a Young Novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa believes that the writer “doesn’t choose his themes; he is chosen by them.” The choice of theme is “perhaps nonexistent . . . My impression is that life, a big word, I know—inflicts themes on a writer through certain experiences that impress themselves on his consciousness or subconscious and later compel him to share himself free by turning them into stories.”
So how does this pertain to the secret act of writing? To shake free and turn obsession into stories, one needs privacy of the mind. What the mind divulges when pen is taken to paper, or fingers to keyboard, is often unknowable to the writer unless she gives herself to the urgency. Writing unfolds in a narrative compelled by the writer’s consciousness, and, through the act of writing dredges up the unconscious, memories, desires, dreams. (If you don’t show up, you don’t know what you’ll miss.) If the writer is afraid of what she might reveal, she self-censors. Hence, why it must be kept as a secret, as if what I’m writing will never be revealed.
I imagine my reader as a clandestine friend who is receiving access to a secret portal—what my imagination has created out of secrecy, urgency, risk, and permission. Fiction is, as Llosa argues, “a lie covering up a deep truth; it is life as it wasn’t, life as the men and women of a certain age wanted to live it and didn’t thus have to invent it. It isn’t the face of History but rather her reverse or flip side: what didn’t happen and therefore had to be fabricated in the imagination and in words to fulfill the ambitions real life was unable to satisfy, to fill the voids women and men discovered around them and tried to populate with ghosts they conjured up for themselves.”
I love this definition of fiction. It gives heft to the power of the imagination in tandem with the conscious or unconscious drive that is best accessed in privacy, in secrecy. Writing requires solitude so that the ghosts will come unencumbered. (I’ve known writers to give up their writing practice because they fear being alone.) Llosa also argues that “authenticity or sincerity for the novelist: the acceptance of his own demons and the decision to serve them as well as possible.”
To accept one’s demons is dangerous, and for some of us, can only be accessed in small doses, in secrecy, in the subversive act. Sometimes what I’m writing is so hot, I must step away from it, clean out a closet or wash my floor. To tap into these demons makes the story compelling, urgent, even sometimes unthinkable! I treasure where and when I write, even in the nooks and crannies of the day or night, because writing gives my life meaning and pleasure. Sometimes I am astonished by the leaps of my imagination once a story has run out of the gate like a horse suddenly set free. It is the act itself, no matter where it takes place, that is the reward.
Jill Bialosky is the author of five acclaimed collections of poetry, three critically acclaimed novels, and two memoirs, including History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life, a New York Times bestseller. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Best American Poetry; The New Yorker; The Atlantic; Harper’s Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; The Kenyon Review; Harvard Review; and The Paris Review, among other publications. She is executive editor and vice president at W. W. Norton & Company. Her work has been a finalist for the James Laughlin Award, the Paterson Poetry Prize, and the Books for a Better Life Awards. In 2014, she was honored by the Poetry Society of America for her distinguished contribution to poetry. She lives in New York City.